A four-day working week won’t solve the UK’s stress epidemic

7 May 2019 By Adrian Moorhouse

Employers should be giving their staff tangible tools to cope under pressure, not just empty perks, argues Adrian Moorhouse

7am: While waiting in line for your morning coffee, you quickly check your work emails  

1pm: That report must get finished today, so it’s lunch at your desk

6pm: You take a call from your boss on the train home

11pm: Before hitting the hay, you scan your emails in bed one last time

Sound familiar? If so, you're not alone; with recent research by the TUC showing that Brits are working the longest hours in the EU. As a former athlete, I am no stranger to hard work, long hours and managing pressure. But problems arise when long-term pressure isn’t managed, and we become stressed as a result. When we accept that excessive stress is normal, as our research of UK workers suggests is the case, something needs to change. 

When we asked stressed workers what can be done to tackle the issue, the most popular option was the introduction of a four-day working week. But would that really address the problem of excessive stress? 

Don’t get me wrong – I love a day off as much as the next person. But while the idea of a four-day week might sound appealing, in practice, it could lead to more stress and a worse work-life balance as people try to cram five days’ worth of work into four. 

In reality, thinking about whether a four-day week will remove stress in the workplace is asking the wrong question. Rather than looking for a way to create an entirely pressure-free work environment, we should acknowledge that pressure can never be eliminated altogether, and that in fact, we shouldn’t want it to be. In manageable doses, pressure can actually motivate and drive us. 

Finding the right balance between manageable pressure and paralysing stress is possible. A four-day week won't help, but a change in mindset will. Everyone experiences pressure in the workplace, but this doesn’t always have to be stressful. The resilience needed to get through these periods can be learned. 

The current problem is that many businesses do not offer the training and resources needed to help their staff develop resilience in order to manage stress. In fact, we found that over half (56 per cent) of staff attribute high levels of stress to lack of support from management, and the unavailability of tools to deal with the problem.

How to manage stress effectively

Businesses, then, must focus on helping employees to help themselves, while creating an environment that allows them to do this. Providing resources and information to enable employees to see the value of resilience as a tool to improve performance during high pressure times, is a good place to start. At the same time, managers should also be made aware of the important role they can play in not just noticing issues, but helping their team to manage pressure. But the above actions will only have a positive impact if leadership teams are aware of the culture they are creating at an organisational level, and setting a good example. 

Debates about stress in the workforce have become increasingly frequent, and this is a good thing. But the conversation needs to move on from the extremes of a four-day working week, or the 12-hour working day recently endorsed by Alibaba’s co-founder Jack Ma.

Ultimately, people need real tools and strategies to help manage stress and thrive under pressure – not just an employee perk that looks good on the company website. 

Adrian Moorhouse is managing director of Lane4 and a former Olympic swimmer

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